EO 137 266
SP 010 904
Inplications of Besearch on Causal Attributions £pr
12p«:-Paper presented at the Annual Heeting of the
Anerican Educational Besearch Association (Hew York,
Nev York, April 4-8, 1977)
HF-$0.83 HC-$1.67 Plus Postage.
Achieve Bent; ^nAttribution Theory; ^Behavioral
Ob J ect ives ; Classroom Environaent ; Curriculua
Developaent; Failure Factors; ^Learning Hotivationf
Performance Factors; ^Psychological Patterns; *Self
Concept; Self Evaluation; Student At-titudes
This paper describes recent research on causal
attribution (ways people construe the events in their lives) and how
knowledge of this psychological phenomena can be used to aid students
in developing attributional processes that jrill enhance motivational
factors and have positive effects on academic achievement. Four
specific suggestions eire made vith this goal in mind for development
of a curriculum: (1) Instructional activities should be constructed
to emphasize the role of effort in successful performance; (2)
Students should be helped to make accurate attributions by attending
to potential areas of "miisattribution"; (3) Instructional
environments should minimize the threat of failure; (4). Students
should be informed of their progress in instruction as it relates to
their past performance and the performance of their peers. (JD)
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Implications of Research on Causal Attributions
for Curricultm Development
School of Education
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This paper was presented as part of a discussion group on "Experimental
Approaches to Curriculum Research" at the annual xoeeting of the American
Educational Research Association, New York, New York, April, 1977.
Implications of Research on Causal Attributions
for Curriculum Development
In recent years, psychology has focussed increasingly on cognitive
processes and their influence on behavior (Bandura, in press; Mischel, 1973).
One result of this focus is that motivational theories have been reconcep-
tualized in informational processing terms (Bandura, 1977; in press; Weiner,
1972). Among the cognitive conceptions of motivation is a theory about
causal attributions — namely Attribution Theory — which has prompted considerable
research. Much of this research, fortuitously, has been conducted with
students in achievement- related situations. The results have rich iiiq>lications
for educational practice. But theories about c^ttributional processes, or ways
people construe the events in their lives, are young and complex. Where
guiding principles for practice are dlscemable, they must be considered
experimental. Thus researchers have been hesitant to propose specific
procedures for dealing with attributional processes in the classroom. As a
consequence, present curriculum practices remain largely inattentive to
student attributional processes.
This paper has three aims: (a) to describe a body of recent social
psychological research — research on causal attributions — and discuss its
relevance to education, (b) to argue that explicit attention to attributional
processes in schools requires (at least initially) a systematic and controlled
approach of the kind best provided by professional curriculum developers,
and (c) to provide specific suggestions for curriculum development based on
key research results. It is hoped that application of these techniques in
early education programs will aid students to develop attributional processes
that enhance motivational factors and eventually have positive effects on
Attribution Theory; The Promise for Education
In simple form, the theory of causal attributions as related to
education postulates the existence of two perceived determinants of
achievement outcomes: internal attributions (or attributions to the self,
e.g., when a student says "I did well because I knew the material") and
external attributions (or attributions to the environment, e.g., when a
student says "I did well because the test was easy") . The internal
attributions are further divided into dimensions of "can" ("I have the
ability") and "try" ("I made an effort") (Heider, 1958) . In general, the
education-related research of Weiner (1972) has shown the two internal
dimensions to relate consistently to achievement motivation (as operation-
alized by Atkinson, 1964). More specific resiilts indicate the following:
1. When students are given information about their past
performance, the performance 6f fellow students, and the
difficulty of the task, they are more likely to make
"accurate" achievement attributions.
2. Achievement attributions can be manipulated experimentally.
3. Individuals vary greatly in the amount and kind of information
they use to make achievement attributions.*
4. Persons high in achievement motivation are particularly sensitive
to Information indicating the Importance of effort and have
learned to attribute achievement outcomes to effort.
5. Causal attributions influence the direction, magnitude, and
persistence of achievement-related behavior.
For the most part, these results are substantiated by sound methodology,
the strengths of successive experimentation (Como, 1976), and the related
findings of other researchers (see Bandura, in piess; Rotter, 1966). But
what meaning have they for educational practice? li causal attributions
are strong enough to influence the direction, magnitude, and persistence
of achievement-related behavior in school children, they should be attended
to by teachers and parents. Increasing the accuracy of students* achieve-
ment attributions might also have positive effects on other motivational
aptitudes, such as self-concept and anxiety level, for example. Alternatively,
If students are left to make inaccurate or uninformed attributions (as in
the case of a student who attributes failure to a lack of ability, when
in fact the test was unfair) low self-confidence or greater anxiety may
result. Thus Katz (1967) has found evidence that young black children
frequently fail to learn the value of effort on tasks — a problem that may
be due to inadequate reinforcement patterns in the home and school (p* 163)*
As such, the problem should not be limited to black students, but should
apply to students with less stimulating home and school environments, in
general. Accordingly, attributional change procedures may be of special
concern in early education programs for low socio-economic areas. If
Informed attributions, particularly attributions to effort, can be strengthened
in children at early stages of development, problems of motivation and
academic achievement may be lessened later on.
A further research finding, that causal attributions can be manipulated
experimentally, suggests the possibility that attributional processes are
trainable; this in turn suggests that variations across students in informatioR
they use to make causal attributions should be reducible. If information
use Is more homogeneous, attributions should be consistently more accurate.
And finally, if students with low achievement motivation or low self-efficacy
can be systematically sensitized to the importance of effort, and learn to
make achievement attributions to effort, it is conceivable that achievement
motvlation and self-efficacy could increase in these students over time
a proposition tliat has. been supported to some degree by previous research
(see Bandura, in press; DeCharms, 1972).
specific Suggestions for Curriculum Development
The application of psychological principles to educational practice
Is a coisplex and sensitive area. Outcomes are always multidimensional,
and procedures often demand controlled conditions to achieve expected re-
sults. To trust the initial efforts at training students in attributional
awareness to parents and teachers, where instructional environments and
possible outcomes inevitably vary, then, is risky practice. A more
promising method, at least in the early stages of such an effort, would be
to incorporate specific attributional change processes into standardized
Instructional programs. In this context, the proposed processes can be
applied and evaluated in systematic fashion with representative populations
of students. The remainder of this paper presents preliminary suggestions
to ciirriculum developers for Incorporating attributional change techniques
in systematic instructional programs.
1, Instructional activities should be constructed to emphasize
the role of effort in successful performance .
The research on informational cues for caxisal attributions used
two methods for emphasizing ability and effort differentially:
past performance patterns and direct verbal instructions. Trans-
lated into classroom procedures, these two methods might refer to
instructional feedback, grading practices, and directions for com^
pleting instructional activities. Thus, to emphasize effort in an
instructional activity, a number of options may be useful:
. Directions for completing the lesson might include statements for
students such as "try as hard as you. can," or "think carefiaiy
before answering," or "you will be evaluated as much by how hard
you try as by how well you do,"
. Instructional materials might include stories about characters or
Incidents that illustrate the value of effort, e*g., "the myth of
Sisyphus," or simplified stories of Don Quixote. -
Evaluations of student performance might include specific
comments about how to- Improve by applying concerted effort in
particular problem areas •
Students displaying effort in Instructional situations could
be singled out, reinforced, and asked to share their reasoning
about their efforts with the whole class. This "modeling**" .
technique should prove especially effective if students chosen
as models are diverse In background and other personal charac-
teristics (Bandura, in press, p, 13). Furthermore, such an
approach could be developed into comparative discussions of
Individual students ' "implicit theories" about what makes people
successful (e.g.. Is Jioamy Carter President because he is
ambitious, kind, etc.?) •
Students should be helped to make accurate attributions by
attending to potential areas of "mis attribution" (Kelley, 1967) .
Students can be sensitized to their attributions simply by re-
quests to evaluate their own performance. — The student who mis-
attributes failure, for example, to a lack of ability can be
shown that a lack of effort. Instead , was the problem. Cues
6uch as not reading the material careftilly enough, or at all,
would Indicate a lack of effort. Similarly, failure may have
been determined In part by anxiety. When signs of anxiety are
pinpointed and soothing techniques are applied, the student may
be able to see more positive results. These techniques could
be built Into teachers' manuals, especially in activities that
stand to benefit from Increased effort and concentration.
When consensus. exi8.ts among curriculum developers that some
activities are more difficult than others, this information should
be provided with proEram materials. Knowledge about task
difficulty can often be used as partial justification for initial
failure, rather than permitting the failure to reflect back on
the student's self-worth. -
Attributions are often made incorrectly when views of authorities
are accepted uncritically. A student may believe, for example,
that he is not trying or not able simply because a teacher says so.
Instructional programs designed to develop critical thinking and
Increased self -awareness may be useful in minimizing potential
mis attributions by encouraging questioning and independent thinking*
Instructional environments should minimize the threat of failure >
Apart from the usual concern that instruction progress logically and
conclude with a synthesis, research has shown that when students .are
encouraged to generate alternative ideas, weigh expected consequences
and do creative work on their own, the threat of failure is reduced
and students are more likely to have positive attitudes toward
academic tasks (DeCharms, 1968, p- 346)- Further, specific self-
instructions have been found to sustain work persistence in
academic situations (Meichenbaum and Cameron, 1974) • In both of
these cases, the reinforcement may be said to occur from within
the person himself; the focus of the instruction, accordingly, is
on the individual's self-evaluation of performance, rather than the
performance itself. As Bandura (in press) has noted, the more ex-
tensive the situational aids for performance, the greater the
chance that resiats will be attributed to external factors (p, 21).
It follows, then, that situational aids should be minimized, or
systematically reduced, when internal attributions are a goal.
To accomplish these outcomes, instruction that incorporates
teacher questions, or questions in text, is favorable • Such
questions require ^application and evaluation, permitting a .
range of "correct" answers. Furthermore, when activities
require the student to work on his own ideas at his own pace,
and grading is criterion-based, the threat of failure is reduced
and opportunities to benefit from success are increased.
• Another technique for improving the learning situation might be
to provide specific Instructions for the student to repeat to
himself when anxiety or other distractions arise. For example,
students can be taught to verbalize calming statements to them-
selves ("Don't worry. Worrying won't help anything."), or
statements to aid in resisting temptations leading to inattention
("I only have ten minutes. _ I can't waste time on any one answer.").
Agaln^ the result should be a decrease in the fear of failure
(Meichenbaum and Cameron, 1974).
4, Students should be informed of their progress in instruction as
It relates to their past performance, and the performance of their
Both criterionr^referenced and norm-referenced progress informa-
tion can be important vehicles for increasing accuracy in attri-
butions, especially if students are able to see results of their
efforts over time, and their performance in relationship to the
performance of others as well. Both types of feedback can be
provided in instructional programs, and, when it is provided in graphic
form, students will be able to see results over time.
These four principles and the spceific suggestions within them provide
a preliminary starting point for the development of accurate, informed
attributional processes in school children. This, to "restore the instrumental
value to competencies [the children] possess" (Bandura, in press, p. 28).
The recoinmended mediiiin for providing such training is systematic
Instructional material capable of creating fairly standard learning
environments across a range of subject matter and developmental levels.
Suggestions derive from psychological research on attributional processes
as related to achievement outcomes. Explicitly described, the research
findings have obvious relevance to educational practice. It is unfortunate,
but not unalterable, that few of these findings have been tested in
educational settings. The aim of this paper was to create a confluence
for these two rivers of thought.
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